The FBI waits outside Bertha’s Gifts and Furnishings for the Hole in the Wall Gang
In this third and final installment in my report on Tony Spilotro and his Hole in the Wall gang, the reader will learn how the gang plan a big burglary at Bertha’s Gifts and Furnishings. The only problem is they took in a government informant before the score. As they plan a huge score in the burglary of Bertha’s Gifts and Furnishings, Sal Romano reported every move to his FBI control. By 1981, Spilotro knows he is in for a series of legal challenges. He is facing a RICO indictment for conspiring to skim money from Las Vegas casinos. He knows the government has dedicated a huge amount of resources and they are very serious. He knows his Chicago Outfit bosses, Joey Aiuppa, Jackie Cerone and Angelo LaPietra are all facing these same charges. He needs money and a lot of it. Oscar Goodman, his Las Vegas lawyer does not work cheap. If the government convicts Spilotro, more than likely he goes away for a long stretch and he must earn money to provide for his family in the eventuality.
Las Vegas Metro Intelligence Commander Kent Clifford and FBI agent Emmet Michaels are very focused on the Spilotro burglary crew for several reasons. First because of the bad publicity from the Frankie Bluestein killing, second because of the threats against Sgt. Gene Smith and Det. David Groover of Metro and thirdly because of Commander Clifford’s trip to Chicago to threaten Outfit bosses. They need a win. The FBI and Las Vegas Metro form a task force with the specific intent to bring down Spilotro. They will get a huge break.
How the FBI and Metro Intelligence finally joined forces
Because of the former Sheriff, Ralph Lamb, and his corrupt Intelligence Unit detectives, the FBI has had to hide what they are doing from local law enforcement. In 1981, David Helfry, the USA Attorney in Kansas City, and his staff were working with Bill Ouseley and agents in Chicago, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Las Vegas to put together the skimming cases. They are putting folks in front of a grand jury and trying to get somebody to turn and explain how the skimming works to the trial jury. Even though Metro Intelligence has cleaned up its act, they are still distrustful of the FBI and vice versa. Since much of the FBI information is coming from a Federal Grand Jury, they cannot share that intelligence with the local cops. The FBI has this Top Echelon Informant (Lefty Rosenthal) in Las Vegas and this information cannot be shared. Then a couple of Chicago agents turn a guy who will make all the difference. The FBI will require local cooperation to pull off what they believe will be the blow that brings down Spilotro and his Hole in the Wall Gang.
When the government decides to take down a crew and forms a partnership with the local cops, the target does not have a chance. By this time, the Spilotro Task Force was very familiar with all the usual Hole in the Wall Gang hangouts. Many times, unless there is a specific operation going, the Intelligence guys will merely hang around the known spots like clubs, casinos, apartments or homes to see who their targets meet and follow them to maybe identify other businesses they go into or to see what other activities they participate in. The officers might see Cullotta or another member of the gang frequenting another bar or business where they had a friend or a source working and they would later visit the place to find out what the crook was doing there. Many people think this is a waste of time and the officers themselves may not realize or understand exactly what they are seeing during these kinds of surveillance. In his case, they were observing Tony Spilotro with Frank Cullotta, Ernie Davino, Larry Newman, Wayne Mateki, Leo Guardino, and Joe Blasko quite a lot. They knew these were all career criminals and had done high-end burglaries or robberies in the past. The cops suspected they may be the famous Hole in the Wall Gang, but they had been unable to catch them in the act.
Frank and Tony plan the last big job at Bertha’s Gifts and Furnishings
In the Spring of 1981, Frank and his crew started planning their biggest job to date, Bertha’s Gifts and Furnishings located just west of Sarah on Maryland Parkway, 896 E Sahara Ave. The surveillance officers started seeing a new guy they identified as Sal Romano hanging out with the gang. This did not worry them because they were the ones who placed Romano inside the gang. Sal had caught a case and the FBI had turned him. They even set him up in an apartment in Las Vegas with a fake girlfriend who was supposed to be an airline attendant to explain why she was rarely seen. The Bureau wired up this apartment for sound and video. Sal would work to get his crew members over to the apartment and talk about their jobs. Sal would later testify that a part-time gang member named Peter Basile brought him into the gang because he had electronic skills to deal with sophisticated burglar alarms.
Chicago cops warn off Frank but Spilotro disregards
Frank Cullotta claims that he was visited by two Chicago cops sent to see him by the corrupt Chicago police commander William Hanhardt. They told Frank that they knew that local cops in Chicago had a stolen property case on Romano and the case involved interstate transportation, so it was taken over by the Feds. They went back to check on the progress of their case and could not find any record in the system. Frank said he thanked them, offered to get them casino show or meal comps and they refused. They both said they just thought they should tell him about Romano. Frank said he went to Spilotro with this information and Tony brushed it off. He told Frank to put the guy with Larry Newman when they went to Bertha’s Gifts and Furnishings during the burglary and if anything, funny happened to have Newman kill Romano. Frank also alleges that in retrospect, he did notice that when he went to Romano’s new apartment it looked like a set or that things were placed so it looked like Romano lived there with his new girlfriend. He noticed that whenever he engaged her in conversation, she refused to look him in the eye and appeared nervous.
Despite Frank’s information, Tony insisted he stay with the score. Frank said that Tony probably had a plan to kill Romano after the score was over. He never thought that Sal was actively helping law enforcement and figured the worst-case scenario would be that he would become a cooperating witness after the score was taken down.
What they did not know was that the Feds and Metro Intelligence were all over Romano and he was briefing them about the preparations as July the 4th got closer. They chose this weekend to give them more time because the store was closed an extra day, the fireworks would cover any noise and the cops would be very busy on the strip and in the residential areas.
The fateful night arrives. It is July 4, 1981. This was a Saturday and Bertha’s Gifts and Furnishings would not be open again until Tuesday. Like that 1957 burglary, Frank and Tony did back in Chicago, a long weekend. Frank was crazy with suspicion over Sal Romano. The tension was running high in all the burglary crew.
The night of the take-down at Bertha’s Gifts and Furnishings
The cops and agents had already made their reconnaissance and had established assignment on fixed positions surrounding Bertha’s. They alerted the FBI surveillance plane, so it would be overheard circling. Agents and Metro officers will form 2-man teams for the moving surveillance around the outside. Agent Michaels and Commander Clifford will set up a command post in a nearby building. They issue instructions that all moving surveillance crews will maintain a respectable distance and to not alert any of the suspects. Each crew is assigned a gang member to monitor. They will report when they see them leaving their homes or moving toward the target. They will stay way back because they know the entire crew is headed, to Bertha’s. The ground crew will be hiding behind air conditioners on other buildings, inside a couple of empty storefronts, or watching from a nearby bank roof. Once the burglary crew drips off Ernie Davino, Leo Guardino, and Wayne Mateki, the moving surveillance crew move in a little closer and park. The airplane is circling and reporting the movements. Joe Blasko has provided each of the burglars with 2-way radios. He is sitting outside in a van with police monitors. Soon, one of the rooftop crews reports that they see men on Bertha’s roof. Everybody tenses up and their heart rate and breathing become rapid.
Sal Romano will lay back and radio to Frank that his car is in a nearby parking lot and the battery is dead. Frank responds and pushes his car a short distance away and orders him to ride with Larry Newman. Sal will slip away during this time.
Once the rooftop lookout sees the men on the roof drop inside Bertha’s Gifts and Furnishings, they notify the command post. In the command post, the FBI supervisor will wait a short time to let them start moving stuff around and setting up to open the safe. The evidence of property moved inside a burglary changes it to a burglary from a trespass. The elements of a burglary are the breaking and entering but you need to show an intention to steal. Several agents are assigned to enter the business and take down Ernie Davino, Leo Guradino and Wayne Mateki. The mobile crews have been given the car descriptions of Larry Newman and Frank Cullotta.
The Surveillance crews move in. They secure the outside of the store and enter with some uniformed officers. Davino and Guardino quickly give up. The mobile crews take Blasko, Newman and Mateki into custody with no drama. Frank Cullotta makes a short run, he will claim later that he wanted to get into a lit populated area because he was afraid the cops would kill him out of revenge over the Spilotro response to the killing of Frankie Blue. Emment Michaels will later say this was the greatest night of his career. As they took the crew to jail, agents or officers will casually mention that Sal Romano must have gotten away. But these men were seasoned criminals and they knew immediately that Sal had set them down for the FBI.
Most mob fans have seen the famous photos taken of the entire crew, except Tony Spilotro. They are all standing in front of a jail door and what I noticed was that Frank was standing off to the side with a disgusted look. He tried to tell Spilotro. I can only imagine he was thinking.
Over the next few days, Tony will make sure the crew is bailed out of jail. Then the purge starts. Tony first tells Frank that they must kill Sal Romano and Frank applies a little reasoning to this plan. He asked, “How we gonna do this Tony, the guy is in witness protection, he will be surrounded by agents?” Tony replied, “I know a guy that can poison his food.” Frank said, “Yeah but, where is he?”
Why did Frank Cullotta turn witness?
Spilotro’s irrational behavior has scared Frank Cullotta. FBI agents approach Frank with a tape from a Chicago wiretap. They play this tape and he hears a voice telling Tony Spilotro that he must clean his dirty laundry. From that tape, Frank believes that he will be on the hit list. Tony has already talked about killing every man on the crew at one time or another. This tape will convince Frank to become a government witness. Frank Cullotta will testify at numerous Chicago outfit trials over the next few years. Sonce tis time, Cullotta has published several books abuyt his time in Las Vegas, he was a technical advisor and played himself in the movie Casino. He currently lives in Las Vegas and conducts a Casino Mob and Film tour of the places where the casino film was shot and where the real-life Las Vegas mobsters live, drank, and ate. If you want to book his tour call, 760-415-2105
Larry Newman and Wayne Mateki will take a conviction for the machete murder of the Chicago jeweler Bob Brown. Newman will die in prison and we guess that Wayne Mateki is dead. Leo Guardino will be convicted, and we are guessing he is dead. Ernie Davino was convicted, and he was a standup guy to the end. He even testified for Tony Spilotro trying to refute the testimony of Sal Romano. He told the jury that these burglaries were not really planned by anybody and that Spilotro was not part of the Hole in the Wall Gang. The jury will return a not guilty for Spilotro in that trial. During his time in prison, Davino will find redemption in a rosary he found on his bunk. He developed faith in a higher power and worked in a prison ministry after release. He is living back in New Jersey. Tony Spilotro and his brother Michael will be set up by the Outfit and killed back in Chicago. Sal Romano will testify in other Outfit trials and the last one was known as the Family Secrets trial in 2007. I believe he is deceased.
In the 2007 Family Secrets trial Nick Calabrese testifies that Aiuppa and the Outfit sent him and a team out to Vegas to kill Tony Spilotro using explosives and automatic weapons. After that plan was aborted, a scheme was hatched to lure the brothers to a meeting in a Bensenville Illinois house with the promise of a mob promotion for Tony and that Michael would become a “made” member of the Outfit.
Calabrese testified that he and around 10 other outfit killers, including James LaPietra, John Fecarotta, John DiFronzo, Sam Carlisi, Louie “The Mooch” Eboli, James Marcello, Louis Marino, Joseph Ferriola, and Ernest “Rocky” Infelice were waiting as the two brothers entered the basement. Calabrese said he tackled Michael Spilotro and held his legs while another mobster strangled him with a rope. He said he heard Tony Spilotro ask his executioners, “Can I say a prayer?” There was no reply. Their bodies will be accidentally found by a farmer in an Indiana cornfield. The film Casino depicts them being killed in that cornfield.
For a decade the men of Spilotro’s Hole in the Wall Gang ruled in Las Vegas and cut a swath of high-end burglaries and thefts throughout the Southwest. They had money, women, drugs, and all the action they could handle. After their string of luck ran out, the only gang members who grew old were Ernie Davino who found God and Frank Cullotta who found Hollywood.
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